Glowing green intravenous nutrient energy packs, hovering computer mice, powered exoskeleton gloves that turbo-charge a person's button clicking speed: The only thing more surprising than peripheral maker Razer's annual over-the-top April Fools' product announcements are the people who still seem to fall for them and, no matter the personal peril, sign up to be beta testers.
One year, a Razer prank even tricked Microsoft, Verizon and the government into thinking the peripheral maker was on the verge of a leap in technology for next-gen drones, the company says.
Razer "unveiled" the Eidolon on April 1, 2014, as the world's first wearable drone system. The four-bladed copter was controlled with a "wrist command module" and had the ability to deliver a third-person view to its user with the help of a camera that streamed high-definition video directly to "membrain" contact lenses.
The morning the announcement hit the Razer website, the company started getting calls from technology partners, says Kian Naderi, global senior creative manager for Razer community marketing.
"The chief innovation engineer for Verizon said they wanted to work with us on it," Naderi says. "We told them we'd get back to them."
He said Microsoft contacted one of Razer's business development guys, saying a "certain three-letter government agency is very interested in the Razer Eidolon."
They never heard back from Microsoft or Verizon after the announcement on the site was emblazoned with a big red "April Fools'!" the next day.
While many companies in the game industry create elaborate April Fool's Day pranks, Razer's eight-year history of pranking often wins the day. That might be because the rest of the year, Razer seems so willing to announce, and sometimes even sell, weird devices. That willingness to think outside the box has helped the company win a string of Best of CES awards and shake up the laptop and peripheral industry a bit. But it's also made it easier to blur the line between what Razer is really working on and those similarly strange, over-the-top annual April Fools' announcements.
This year's prank, a Razer-themed toaster given the codename Project Bread Winner, is a prime example of that.
The toaster was born out of an inside joke between Razer and its fans. The prank announcement declared that the toaster was going to happen, but only with the input of fans. Razer needed to know what people wanted in their machine. Should it send an alert when the toast is done? Spray colored energy butter onto the bread? Burn a Razer symbol into the toast? Maybe it should have a magazine for holding sliced bread, ready for the toasting, or the ability to eject bread onto a plate sitting on a table.
Strip away the nonsense, like that Chroma Energy butter, and you're left with something that sort of grew out of both Razer's philosophical approach to design and its strong relationship with customers.
"Nobody really remembers our first April Fools' joke."
Travis Wannlund sounds a little sad when he says it. We're sitting in a conference room in Razer's recently opened offices, located across the street from one of the conference halls housing the week's Game Developers Conference. Outside the glass walls of the conference room, I see fans and journalists roaming around in a cavernous, cement-floored room eating snacks, drinking and tinkering with some of Razer's latest creations. It looks like an open house for gamers, splashed with the trademark neon green and black of the company's three-headed snake logo.
I'm sitting in front of a desk loaded down with Razer Blade Stealth laptops, the new Core graphics amps, monitors and one rounded black rectangle that sticks out from the rest of the clutter.
On one side is a hastily applied Razer logo etching. A single black power cord droops from the black metal box. It's a toaster.
Plugged in, the toaster's underside glows with the familiar gleam of Razer's Chroma color LEDs, which light up mice, mouse pads, headphones, laptops, keyboards and now, several prototype toasters created for the company's latest prank.
I'm trying to figure out Razer's process for making its now well-known, over-the-top April Fools' Day gags.
But the discussion quickly shifts to a from-memory rundown of the company's jokes.
Wannlund, the company's global director of community marketing, corrects everyone's guesses by reminding them that the first was a forgettable, admittedly lame attempt at humor.
"In 2009 we announced we were collaborating with Valve on a game to make a motion controller and a game that would feature both Gabe [Newell] and [Razer co-founder Min-Liang Tan] in it," Wannlund says.
He says the idea was very last-minute. Razer realized it was April 1 and figured it had to do something. So the company wrote up a quick announcement and pasted it to the front page of the site.
"That kind of started the idea of wanting to get into April Fools' and making this a thing," he says. "Every year we kept taking it one step further."
Perhaps because 2009's text-only prank was so simple, Razer came back in 2010 with an entire landing page for its next prank: Venom.
"Razer Venom gained a lot of traction," Wannlund says. "It was an energy IV nutrient that would let you play games for 50 hours without having to sleep."
"All you have to do is inject the needle into your veins and let Razer Venom do the rest," reads the website, which goes on to warn of potential side effects like "massive hysteria" and "claw fist syndrome."
Despite the warnings for the untested product, thousands signed up to be beta testers, Wannlund says.
The next day they found out the entire thing was a joke.
"Since the first one was so last-minute, we really wanted to create art assets and a webpage and do it up, present it as a real product," Wannlund says. "We had so much fun writing the copy and building this thing as a joke.
"Then we saw a lot of people believing it, and the scary thing was that a lot of them wanted to try it."
Naderi didn't come on until the launch of 2012's SnakeEyes.
"They were glasses that gamified your life," he says. "It worked like [Fallout's] Pip-Boy. It could give you dialogu options, calculate the odds of throwing your pencil at someone or give you the recipe to make flaming-hot Twinkies."
"I came up with this formula for what makes an April Fools' Day joke work," Naderi says. "It has to be semi-plausible. It has to be able to fool someone without being just funny. It has to be relevant. It has to be aspirational, something gamers want."
Wannlund adds that the company also tries to avoid creating a product that mocks a category in which Razer is already making items at the time.
"We're in software; we're in wearables," he says. "We wouldn't have done SnakeEyes if we had already announced OSVR.
"As we expand as a company, we're starting to find it difficult to come up with jokes that still resonate as jokes and not as something that we're actually already doing."
Razer's most successful prank to date is probably 2014's Eidolon drone. It fooled fans, partners and, if Razer is to be believed, even someone in the government. It also preceded a slew of similar devices announced during 2015's Consumer Electronics Show. One company even launched a Kickstarter campaign to try and sort of replicate the idea, down to a third-person video feed sent to your smartphone.
That concept started out as a question about a regular viewing angle found in some games: "How the hell do third-person cameras follow you?" Naderi says. "If you made a device that did that, it would have to be a drone."
At the time wearables were also getting to be a big thing, so Razer figured it had to be a wearable drone system as well.
"At the time it sounded completely ridiculous to us," he says.
Someone on the team brought in an old bowling glove and took it to the office repair room, which is packed with bits and pieces of all of Razer's devices.
"We just took a bunch of stuff from the repair room and glued it onto the glove," Naderi says.
Then the team came up with a bunch of absurd features that the device should have, and started creating a video to make it look like it was real. The finishing touch had to be the moment in the video when the drone seems to effortlessly guide itself to the glove, then land and attach onto it.
"We put a bunch of magnets on it and kept shooting videos until we got the landing right," he says. "My arm got sliced and I was bleeding. It flew into my face. We had to do it like 20 times."
The result was a video that makes the imagined device seem real, showing the third-person view and even a "snack retrieval mode" where the drone seems to be dropping a Cheeto into someone's mouth.
"I don't know why people thought it was real," Naderi says. "But we got fan mail from everywhere. People wanted to test it or buy it."
The video currently has more than 2.5 million views.
"The joy of April Fools' and what really pulls us back to doing this every year is taking an idea and going over-the-top ridiculous with it," Wannlund says. "How would we apply an almost satirical take on it? What would a ridiculous gamer version be?"
This year, that idea was a toaster.
And it seemed to fit all of Razer's April Fools' rules.
It is in a category — home appliances — in which Razer doesn't create products.
It is sort of believable.
It has the potential to be made completely absurd.
"We wanted to take the satirical angle of the gaming culture and apply it to something more mundane," says Wannlund. "Like, how do you gamify toast? It's a fun thought experiment."
This year, to mix things up a bit, Razer also reached out to some members of the community for help with the prank. (The company also asked me to play along, but I declined.)
"This is the first time we've ever done that, taking an idea that originated with the community," Wannlund says. "Have some of them involved in the joke this time around."
What makes a toaster a gamified Razer toaster?
"Wouldn't it be cool if we had high-performance energy slurry you could put on the toast?" Wannlund says.
Naderi adds that it would be great if the toaster could notify you through an app when your toast is done. "Maybe it could launch the toast onto your plate," he says. "Or you could have the capability to burn the Razer logo into your toast. Maybe it could have two USB ports?"
Why two — how about three, I ask.
"Sure, OK, it has three USB ports for charging, then," Naderi says. "How about you can slide the toast under it and there's a butter mister there? It sprays Chroma Energy Butter that changes color to match your color profile?"
What are you calling this toaster, I ask.
"We're calling it Project Bread Winner," Naderi says. "And we'll have a tagline: Bread to Win."